Opportunities in the expanding school food markets are ripe for growers to explore.

“This is the peak era,” says Anupama Joshi, program director for the National Farm to School Program in Los Angeles. “It’s all hit a tipping point.”

Congress is weighing funding proposals, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to streamline its programs, she says.

Attention from the Obama administration, including the first lady’s work with school gardens and nutrition, also helps.

More distributors are participating, aiding growers not willing or able to deal directly with school districts’ food buyers. Growers as well as distributors are adding processing operations to wash, chop and even flash-freeze produce to better meet customers’ needs, Joshi says.

Another growth factor is the local-food movement—which also can reduce costs for schools’ tight budgets. Transporting over shorter distances cuts freight charges, says Dave Stahel, sales manager for Cre8it Inc., a Minneapolis-based processor working with the St. Paul, Minn., school district.

“These days anyone in any state is going to be buying local,” Stahel says.

Selling the students on ëlocalí

In-school promotions, such as pictures from participating farms, have helped sell students on local produce.

“That made all the difference in the world,” he says. “The kids had never seen some of this stuff.”

Schools aren’t a hard market to breach, says Glyen Holmes, executive director of the Marianna-based New North Florida Cooperative Association, a sales group of independent farmers serving schools in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

Incorporate nutritional content and serving costs into sales pitches. With budgets that limit schools to paying 13 to 18 cents per serving, consider “What can you supply them at that price,” Holmes says.

Start small before expanding with demand. “This is a market that’s going to be around until the cows come home,” Holmes says.

Every county has a school district that’s charged with feeding students.

Programs vary by school district. Some focus on salad bars while others integrate produce throughout their menus.

Definitions of local may be wide enough to include neighboring states. Districts in areas with shorter growing seasons may limit their participation to only part of the school year.

Grower sales have soared

Rodney Taylor, director of nutritional services at Riverside (Calif.) Unified School District, offers a full-meal all-you-can-eat salad bar in 29 of the district’s 31 elementary schools, and prepared salads for middle- and high-school cafeterias.

Over five years, sales from the initial three participating growers have risen from $10,000 each to $500,000.

Students have embraced the fresh approach as well, with 70 percent now choosing cafeteria meals, up from the 47 percent served when he began.

Taylor buys directly from growers within a 30-mile circle, who deliver twice a week to the district’s central kitchen.

Taking advantage of federal commodity programs for salad bar proteins helps offset any price difference for buying local produce, he says.

Seasonal programs versus year-round

The St. Paul Public Schools’ farm-to-school program revolves around fall harvests, as local produce drops off by December, despite drawing from a 200-mile circle that includes parts of North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa. The 5-year-old program started small, with Minnesota apples, and now includes corn, broccoli, potatoes, onions, cranberries and turnips.

“We discovered that we’d been receiving local produce all along, but we’d never asked that question before,” says Jim Groskopf, purchasing analyst.

Careful planning and judicious substitutions help balance the self-sustaining program’s budget, Groskopf says. Last fall, for example, cafeterias switched to locally processed carrot coins from higher-cost California baby carrots.

Local suppliers can offer unexpected bargains, such as a field of blemished butternut squash that retailers won’t take. Cosmetic defects aren’t a factor for school cafeterias using only processed produce, giving the grower a sale rather than a plowed-under loss, Groskopf says.

For some growers, schools offer the perfect market for their crops. The older trees at Old Grove Orange in Redlands, Calif., produce smaller fruit ideal for kids, says founder Bob Knight.

Knight has sold oranges, apples and grapes to schools in the Los Angeles metropolitan region for three years.

“We can share our citrus heritage,” he says.

Grower-friendly contracts

Sticking to local, in-season fruit holds down costs, but also pushes schools to offer more variety rather than keeping any single item year-round, he says.

“We want fresh, seasonal produce,” says Dawn Houser, director of nutrition services for Collier County (Fla.) Public Schools. “But not if it’s double the price of something similar” from out of state.

Houser is developing guidelines to implement a farm-to-school program in the fall and expects to give preference to bids offering Florida produce. Suppliers will be able to source from farther afield when in-state crops aren’t in season.

The district put out a request for bids for produce distributors in late June and will choose a distributor in August. On Sept. 22, the district will invite local farmers to meet the commercial distributor that won the bid.

“We encourage buying teams for schools to set up contracts that are grower-friendly,” says Steve Condit, Florida sales manager for Custom Pak Inc. in Immokalee.

The company is promoting safe, local tomatoes and vegetables within those crops’ growing cycles that will suit school menus, buyers’ price points and students’ nutritional needs, Condit says.

The winter freeze that devastated Florida’s tomato crop delayed Custom Pak’s first steps into school food programs by pushing prices beyond their budgets, he says.

While some districts prefer to work with distributors and buying groups, others remain open to dealiing with local growers. The push to consolidate concerns Knight, who worries that small operations might be squeezed out of a market they helped build.

“Farm to school has to have the farmer in it,” he says. “That’s the required ingredient. That means it really is local and it really is fresh.”